Poet Maggie Smith balances beauty and brokenness in ‘Goldenrod’

Growing up in Columbus, Maggie Smith spent countless carefree childhood days exploring the creek that ran through the backyard of her family’s home.

“And, when I was a kid, it was a river, because when you’re 6, even a stream is a big body of water,” Smith said during a recent interview at his Bexley home. “We built a stone bridge to cross, because we knew the children who lived on the other side of the stream. And I spent so much time running down the hill, going into the woods down there, playing in the creek and getting dirty. We collected plants to make potions and collected everything we could find: salamanders, minnows, those little water bugs that skate on the surface of the water and make little dimples on the surface. »

This first connection to nature surfaces in Smith’s most recent collection of poetry, goldenrodavailable now, for which the writer will read at a release event at Gramercy Books, 2424 E. Main St. in Bexley, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, August 3. (A limited number of tickets are available online here.)

This is not to say, however, that this love of nature developed in tandem with a greater knowledge of this earthly environment. “I am no botanist,” Smith writes in the book’s title poem. “If you’re the color of sulfur and you push to the side of the road, you’re a goldenrod.”

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These natural elements play varying roles in the poems, sometimes recalling those innocent days of Smith’s youth, and other times providing a sense of scale that can make even adult problems dwarf in comparison. “It’s nice to get out of my headspace and be in a place that makes you feel really small, like standing by the ocean or going into the woods, where you feel small in the right place. meaning,” Smith said. “That sense of perspective, I think, is really important.”

Smith said this was especially true of the years between 2015 and 2020 when the poems making up this collection were written, a stretch shaped by the rise and reign of Donald Trump, a growing and distorted sense of nationalism, environmental decline and , ultimately, a pandemic that has crippled swathes of society for much of the past year. These awkward developments carry over to a number of new poems, including “Animals” (“The President Called Undocumented Immigrants animals”) and “Tender Age” (“America, where does your conscience dwell? I mean, where was it taken from?”), among others.

“My concept of what it means to be a human being has changed,” Smith said of the change that has taken place within herself over the past five or six years. “There’s a poem in the book (“Animals”) where the last line is, “I’ve stopped knowing what it means to be human,” and I don’t know what it is to be If we see ourselves as different or better or more evolved and able to make compassionate choices, then why don’t we?

“I think for too many years we’ve congratulated each other, and I think of that as someone who’s progressive and liberal, where it’s really easy to congratulate each other and say, ‘See? We do the right things. And, over the past few years, I’ve had to deal with a lot of things, not that they don’t generally go well, but that I am does not go well. What could I do differently, not only as a person in the world, but also as a parent and cruise director for my children? …I mean, I guess I’m kind of famous as a poet who wrote about protecting your children from pain and not telling them about the things of the world (in the viral poem ‘Good Bones’ ). But I don’t really live by it anymore.

At the time Smith wrote “Good Bones,” one of his children was a toddler and the other was in kindergarten, so the desire to protect them from the horrors of the world was understandable. Now that they are older, however, the poet has engaged them in more complex conversations, navigating a difficult line between wanting to protect them but also wanting to leave them prepared. “I want them to see the beauty and the magic of everyday things,” Smith said. “But I also don’t want them to be oblivious to the big issues that we need to work together to solve.”

This tension defines in many ways goldenrod, who manages to capture moments of light and beauty while acknowledging that the world is broken. “We live in a broken place, and yet it’s a beautiful place. Both are true,” Smith said. “And I think that’s also true for individuals. We’re broke, and we’re also generally good. And so part of it is just being able to hold both of those things at the same time and not lean on it, like “Well, if it doesn’t work perfectly, that’s bad” or “If we look at all this beauty, how can the world be a bad place?” It’s both, isn’t it? And the reason it’s both is because of the decisions we make.

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Compared to past works, the language in goldenrod is thin and conversational, with Smith wielding his editor’s pen with surgical skill, excising syllable wreckage and exposing his inner voice more clearly than ever, with the kinds of humorous tangents and observations that have crept their way into our conversation. . At one point, discussing the influence of his parents’ record collection on his early embrace of language, Smith noted that some LPs were better at learning metaphor than others – “I’m not sure learned a lot from Tower of Power.” she said laughing – a conversation that ultimately led to the revelation that the last line of goldenrod (“We gotta come to the chorus now”) was ripped from Pavement’s equally shimmering song “Gold Soundz.”

“When I started writing, I had a clearer delineation in my mind of what a poem should be and what a poem should sound like, and I remember at the first readings I would get up and read my poems, I joked around a bit, and then people would come up to me afterwards and be like, ‘You’re not like your poems at all,’ and I didn’t know how to take that at that point” “, Smith said. “But what they meant was, ‘You’re funny and sarcastic and you have a dirty sense of humor, and none of that comes out of the poems, which seem clever and restrained. , but not like you.

Gradually, over time, Smith surfaced in his poems, writing about his children, his divorce, and the simple joys of walking his dog in his neighborhood, and his language became more conversational to match this topic, by removing some of the more “decorative” elements she said she embraced when starting out as a writer.

“I’m less valuable about it than 20 years ago, where there might have been an image, or an adjective-noun phrase, or something in a poem that I really really liked, where there wouldn’t be a never occurred to me to get rid of it because it was pretty,” Smith said. by the question, “How do I get to the essential thing that the poem is trying to do? And then I let the poem be the driving force.”